Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Theaters: "Casino Jack"

The thing about the Jack Abramoff story is not that a great film could be made of it, it’s that one already was: Alex Gibney’s thrilling, brilliant, angry documentary account, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, released earlier this year. The most depressing element of the late George Hickenlooper’s dramatization—which carries the simpler title Casino Jack—is that it will presumably be seen by a much larger audience, by sheer virtue of the fact that it is not a documentary and that it features actors you’ve heard of, like Kevin Spacey and Kelly Preston. But it’s a messy, lumpy affair which somehow takes the opportunity to streamline and dramatize the Abramoff story and instead gets all tied up in narrative knots.

The early scenes hint of the approach they could have taken. The pre-title sequence catches Spacey, as Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, looking at himself in a bathroom mirror and reciting a fiercely determined monologue of self-purpose and self-congratulation (“I will not allow the world I touch to be vanilla!” he announces). It has the pathetic, seriocomic undertones of similar scenes it is clearly meant to recall in Raging Bull and Boogie Nights, and Spacey chomps into the soliloquy with enough gregarious brio to transform it into a rich comic aria.

That opening, and the fast-paced, squirrelly style of the scenes that follow, indicates that the filmmakers may have wisely chosen to put a dizzy spin on the material, playing the narrative as a Wag The Dog-style political comedy. But screenwriter Norman Snider is no David Mamet, and those ambitions (and our associated hopes) quickly dissipate as the film gets tangled up in a web of names, places, and discombobulated sequences. Snider’s only writing credits in the last decade are made-for-TV dramatizations of the Heidi Fleiss scandal and the fall of the porn kingpin Mitchell brothers, and for most of its running time, Casino Jack feels uncannily like a TV movie as well; the events are all there, diligently recreated, but there’s no style to the picture, no spark.

The dialogue certainly plays like small screen; the first red flag comes when Grover Norquist (Jeffrey R. Smith) says to Abramoff, “Jack, I’ve known you for 25 years.” Hey there, budding screenwriters, here’s a tip: people never announce to each other how long they’ve been acquainted, because they both know. Later, Abramoff proclaims, “Look around! It’s post-9/11!” Snider wrote that down, on paper, and then Spacey said it, and Hickenlooper shot it, and put it in his movie; seems like someone, somewhere along that food chain, should have questioned if that’s something anyone would ever say out loud. Poor Kelly Preston, as Abramoff’s wife, doesn’t get one line that isn’t a hoary cliché (their big fight scene is a real clanger). And the meta-movie references (Abramoff worked briefly as a movie producer) are cute at first, but they wear out their welcome fast.

Barry Pepper, as Abramoff’s partner in crime Mike Scanlon, comes on strong with the right elixir of oily charm and “dude” bravado, but he isn’t equipped as an actor to go to the character’s darker emotional realm, and neither Snider’s script nor Hickenlooper’s direction are able to ease him there. But Jon Lovitz (as sleazy frontman Adam Kidan) is scuzzily sensational, and the late Maury Chakin (in his penultimate role) is a marvel as a deceptively warm connected guy, menacing with a grin. He’s the most interesting character (and actor) in the movie.

Spacey, whose filmography of late has been (to put it charitably) uneven, mostly comes across. He still loses his shit better than just about anyone on screen, and an early scene where he is fired from his cushy lobbyist gig is a full-bore oratorio. He maintains a special sting that only he can put in a line, but even an actor of his skill can’t sell some of these moments. He seems particularly at a loss late in the film, when he’s brought in to meet with the members of his current firm after the scandal that ultimately brought him down breaks; he’s desperate, clinging, spinning as fast as he can, but when he’s told that he’s on the front page of that day’s paper, his response—“Is it above the fold?”—is a cheap, easy shot, and more importantly, it doesn’t make any sense within the scene.

Casino Jack has got plenty of action, but not much in the way of drama. Its primary concern, as far as we can tell, is just to get everything in, so countless scenes turn into reciting of facts and empty sloganeering (like the painfully overwritten face-off with a Post reporter). It is possible to write a dense, true story that’s packed with facts and still witty or stylish (see The Social Network). But, once it gets past its opening scenes, Casino Jack barely even tries. If all it’s offering is an account of what happened, without a compelling spin of its own, then what reason is there for an audience to see it instead of a well-made documentary?

"Casino Jack" opens Friday, December 17th in limited release.

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